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People are calling for TikTok to be pulled from app stores in the U.S.


Things between the U.S. and China are tense. Just yesterday, the U.S. military shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon and China threatened to retaliate. And also, a growing number of lawmakers, including Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, are trying to ban Chinese-owned TikTok from Apple and Google app stores. Emily Baker-White joins us now to tell us why. She's a senior technology writer at Forbes. Welcome to the program.

EMILY BAKER-WHITE: Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: So before we begin, we should note that Apple is one of NPR's financial supporters. But, Emily, what is prompting Michael Bennet and others to call for a TikTok ban?

BAKER-WHITE: So TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, is headquartered in China, and the Chinese government has a higher level of control over the private corporations that work out of China than we do over private companies that work in the United States. And so the fear is that the Chinese government could use TikTok against the national security interest of the United States. And there are two main ways that lawmakers are worried that could happen.

The first of those ways is they're worried that TikTok collects a huge amount of data about us. The second sort of bucket of concern is about what we see on TikTok. TikTok is predicting what it thinks you want to see and feeding you a bunch of that content. There's not a lot of transparency about why you see what you see on TikTok. There is concern that, again, because ByteDance is a Chinese company and ByteDance owns TikTok, the Chinese government could seek to subtly influence what that recommendations algorithm shows people, either in the United States or in other countries, to sort of tweak the public discourse on certain issues that are important to the Chinese government.

RASCOE: TikTok has millions of users in the U.S. I'm wondering, like, how would a ban even work? Like, can you really, you know, stop it now that the genie's kind of out of the bottle?

BAKER-WHITE: I think lawmakers are moving slowly and carefully to try to figure out how they would actually enact such a ban and how they would make sure that a ban would stand up to legal challenges. If there is a ban enacted in the United States, it seems fairly clear to me that TikTok and ByteDance, whichever the entity they decide to go with, will challenge it in court and say, you can't do that. And so some people have criticized the idea of the United States banning an app from civilians' phones as being a little too much like the internet restrictions that they have in China, actually. We don't have a sort of censorship firewall in the United States. The government doesn't control the app stores. It doesn't control what we can download and what we can view online.

RASCOE: NPR reached out to TikTok last week, and what they told us was that they would not share U.S. data with the Chinese government and that, you know, it also has a plan to address these concerns. What do you know about this plan?

BAKER-WHITE: So this is what TikTok calls Project Texas. This is a plan that's been in the works for a long, long time. And their goal is to separate out U.S. user data and all of the employees who touch U.S. user data into a sort of separate, hermetically sealed unit that is based in the United States and say that ByteDance can continue to own TikTok and to own TikTok U.S., but only the people employed at TikTok U.S. by TikTok U.S. would have access to that U.S. user data. The details of the plan have evolved over time. One sort of focal point is a partnership with Oracle, which will apparently have some amount of oversight and control over how data is moved and to where. Another key part of it is that there would be U.S. government-appointed sort of controllers who would be able to go in and assess whether there was any tomfoolery going on with either transfers of user data or with attempts to change the algorithm.

RASCOE: Well, it sounds like that would require some level of trust. What needs to happen to assuage the concerns? Is Project Texas enough?

BAKER-WHITE: I think they are trying to create a system that doesn't require trust. They are trying to create a system where you don't have to trust ByteDance; you only have to trust Oracle. And you only have to trust the U.S. government-approved people who will be sort of evaluating the systems. But the question is, can they really set up a system like that? Because TikTok and all of its sort of myriad internal tools, like any app of this size - there are dozens and dozens of internal sort of back-end tools that send data from here to there, not for any nefarious reason, just 'cause that's how, like, these apps run. And all of those were built by people in China. And proving a negative - proving that you've gotten all of the ways that data can flow, that you know every single one and that you've closed them all off, is a Herculean task.

RASCOE: That's Emily Baker-White, senior technology writer at Forbes. Thank you so much.

BAKER-WHITE: Thank you.

RASCOE: NPR reached out to Google and Apple for comment. No response was received by our airtime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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